To Joseph Stella and other progressive artists of the early twentieth century, the timeworn conventions of European painting seemed powerless to convey the dynamism of modern life. An Italian immigrant, Stella arrived in New York City at a time of unprecedented urban growth and social change in America. He first encountered the new approaches of modernist painting on a trip to Paris and took particular interest in Futurism, an Italian
movement that claimed to be “violently revolutionary” in its opposition to the traditions that had prevailed in art ever since the Renaissance. Upon returning to the United States, Stella himself converted to Futurism, convinced that only its new vision of reality could capture the complexities of the machine age.
In the Brooklyn Bridge, Stella found a subject that impressed him, he said, “as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America.” Brooklyn Bridge, his signature image, addressed the two aesthetic currents of his time—representation and abstraction—to suggest the deeper significance of this modern architectural icon. Stella photographed its various components— the maze of wires and cables, the granite piers and
Gothic arches, the pedestrian walkway and subway tunnels, the thrilling prospect of Manhattan skyscrapers—as an abstract pattern of line, form, and color that evokes an idea of the bridge rather than faithfully describing it. Yet, as one critic observed, Stella’s interpretation seemed “more real, more true than a literal transcription of the bridge could be.” A “literal transcription” would have represented only its appearance, the impression it
left upon Stella’s retina. A Futurist rendition could also account for more subjective impressions, the physical and psychological sensations it produced on the artist.
Stella had been inspired to paint the Brooklyn Bridge by his own intense experience of it late one night as he stood alone on the promenade, listening to the noises peculiar to the modern city: “the underground tumult of the trains in perpetual motion,” “the shrill sulphurous voice of the trolley wires,” “the strange moanings of appeal from tug boats.” With its thrusting diagonals and pulsating colors, Brooklyn Bridge is a visual translation
of that urban atonality and the artist’s sense of claustrophobia. The taut cable lines tying the complex composition together seem to represent the psychological tension of the artist’s conflicting emotional states. Stella felt terrified, “a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness—crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers”; at the same time, he felt spiritually uplifted, “as if on the threshold of a
new religion or in the presence of a new divinity.” In this Futurist interpretation, the pointed arches of the bridge are open to the sky like the ruins of a Gothic cathedral, and the allusions to stained-glass windows suggest his spiritual epiphany.
More subtly, Brooklyn Bridge recalls a touchstone of Stella’s native culture: the medieval Italian poet Dante’s spiritual journey from hell to heaven in The Divine Comedy. “To render more pungent the mystery of my metallic apparition,” Stella explained, “…I excavated here and there caves as subterranean passages to infernal recesses.” The rounded arch of a subway tunnel, red with the hellish glare of a signal light, occupies the inferno in the center of the painting. Just above it, a foreshortened view of the promenade where Stella stood makes a comparatively short link between the terrors of the underworld and the radiance of the heavens. The forces of movement in the painting
converge at the top “in a superb assertion of their powers” to the status of divinity. A third tower (in reality, the bridge has only two) stands at the pinnacle of the pyramid, lit up like a movie marquee by the rushing cables, “the dynamic pillars,” as Stella described them, of the composition. For Stella, the Brooklyn Bridge—with its noises and tremors and terrors and comforts—represented a spiritual passage to redemption, a visual way of showing transcendence in a secular world.
March 20, 2012 PowerPoint JOSEPH STELLA Brooklyn Bridge
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